With the last of the three presidential debates taking place in just three days, and with Barack Obama on his heels in polling after the first two, one would expect Obama allies to come out of the woodwork to sing his praises on foreign policy, the topic of Monday night’s forum. After all, Democrats — including Obama himself — bragged six weeks ago at the Democratic convention that Obama would bury Mitt Romney in this arena.
Instead, former Obama administration Defense undersecretary and State Department adviser Rosa Brooks writes at Foreign Policy that her former boss’ team on foreign policy desperately needs an intervention, and that Obama needs to finally get involved by doing more than giving a few speeches:
Despite some successes large and small, Obama’s foreign policy has disappointed many who initially supported him. The Middle East initiatives heralded in his 2009 Cairo speech fizzled or never got started at all, and the Middle East today is more volatile than ever. The administration’s response to the escalating violence in Syria has consisted mostly of anxious thumb-twiddling. The Israelis and the Palestinians are both furious at us. In Afghanistan, Obama lost faith in his own strategy: he never fought to fully resource it, and now we’re searching for a way to leave without condemning the Afghans to endless civil war. In Pakistan, years of throwing money in the military’s direction have bought little cooperation and less love.
The Russians want to reset the reset, neither the Chinese nor anyone else can figure out what, if anything, the “pivot to Asia” really means, and Latin America and Africa continue to be mostly ignored, along with global issues such as climate change. Meanwhile, the administration’s expanding drone campaign suggests a counterterrorism strategy that has completely lost its bearings — we no longer seem very clear on who we need to kill or why.
Could Obama have done better?
In foreign policy as in life, stuff happens — including bad stuff no one could have predicted. Nonetheless, to a significant extent, President Obama is the author of his own lackluster foreign policy. He was a visionary candidate, but as president, he has presided over an exceptionally dysfunctional and un-visionary national security architecture — one that appears to drift from crisis to crisis, with little ability to look beyond the next few weeks. His national security staff is squabbling and demoralized, and though senior White House officials are good at making policy announcements, mechanisms to actually implement policies are sadly inadequate.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If Obama wants to fix his broken foreign policy machine, he can do it — but conversations with numerous insiders, as well as my own government experiences, suggest that he needs to focus on strategy, structure, process, management, and personnel as much as on new policy initiatives.
Not sexy, I know. But just as a start-up company needs more than an entrepreneurial founder with a couple of good ideas and a nifty PowerPoint presentation, the United States needs more than speeches and high-minded aspirations.
Brooks offers a devastating set of suggestions to improve the situation, each one an indictment of Obama’s foreign-policy management over the last four years:
- Get a strategy.
- Get some decent managers.
- Get people who actually know something.
- Get out of the bubble.
- Get a backbone.
Er … shouldn’t those have been Day One tasks? If a President still has these five tasks on his to-do list on foreign policy almost four years into his term, it’s safe to say that he’s not interested — or competent — enough to accomplish them.
By the way, Brooks hammers Obama on point 3 for letting cronyism conquer over talent and experience:
President Obama promised to ensure transparency and competence in government, but too often, nepotism trumps merit. Young and untried campaign aides are handed vital substantive portfolios (I could name names, but will charitably refrain, unless you buy me a drink), while those with deep expertise often find themselves sidelined.
Cronyism also reigns supreme when it comes to determining who should attend White House meetings: increasingly, insiders say, meetings called by top NSS officials involve by-name requests for attendance, with no substitutions or “plus ones” permitted. As a result, dissenting voices are shut out, along with the voices of specialists who could provide valuable information and insights. The result? Shallow discussions and poor decisions.
Well, what did voters honestly expect when they elected a Chicago machine politician with no executive experience? I’m actually serious about that question. This was one of the big problems with giving a man his first executive experience as President of the United States. This is why it’s better to elect governors, military commanders, or people with extensive private-sector executive experience; they have already lived through the lessons of poor hiring decisions and are a lot smarter about it by the time they’re running the most powerful country in the world. This is just another outcome of having someone in far over his head, and Americans have no one but themselves to blame for it.
Of course, they can correct that failure in about 18 days. And if Mitt Romney isn’t committing Brooks’ damning indictment to memory for Monday’s debate in order to close the deal on the election, I’ll eat my hat.